Botanical travel is an indulgence that passionate gardeners too easily deny ourselves. If funds become available, we are ever-aware of the needs of our own gardens at precisely the time of year we wish to see those of others. And gardeners, after all, are practical people.
However, though it may take a significant effort of will (and a squirreling away of funds) to indulge oneself in the physical pursuit of global inspiration, it takes very little effort to crack open a book and travel to some of those same destinations in the company of a knowledgeable and experienced guide – particularly when the book is as fine, and as deliciously readable as Carolyn Mullet’s Adventures in Eden.
Get Inspired Globally
Showcasing many of the best private gardens in Europe, Adventures in Eden comes at a serendipitous time. Even if we had finally decided that 2020 or the Spring of 2021 was the year to experience the intense naturalism of Garten Moorriem in Lower Saxony, or the design fusion of Jardin Plume near Rouen, or the unbridled biodiversity of Christopher Lloyd’s beloved Great Dixter in Southeast England; our ability to experience the joys of botanical travel is handicapped by the lockdowns all over the globe in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is disappointing, but it is also an opportunity to indulge in self-study, and Adventures in Eden should be at the top of your materials list. By separating featured gardens by country but intra-referencing both designers and gardens throughout the text of the entire book, Mullet provides needed context for those intrigued by the many faces of contemporary European garden design and the inspiration that fuels the passionate gardeners behind them.
She does not overwhelm with needless and over-effusive details, and thus the text feels balanced against the extraordinary photos of artists that include Clive Owen, Claire Takacs, and Marianne Majerus. Mullet brings these gardens, and their owners’ deep passion for them, into our living rooms – daring us to look outside our own windows and imagine what could be.
Discovering Why Good Design Works
The very first time I met the author and garden designer – now a friend – we walked together through several domestic gardens during a tour for garden writers many years ago.
I reference such shoulder-rubbing not in order to drop names, or provide a caveat for an enthusiastic review, but to explain my personal experience with the author’s enviable design expertise. As we quietly walked down pathways regarding both the ornamental and the outrageous, she would gently move my eye towards specific features, sharing with me the reasons they worked – or sometimes didn’t – in the landscape.
As a hands-in-the-dirt writer who made no claims in the world of design, I was grateful for the guidance of why.
Yes, I could see what worked, and what missed the mark. Yes, I knew when I liked something, and when I loathed it. But I couldn’t necessarily put my finger on the deliberate choices that were moving my heart one way or another. I couldn’t instinctively tell you what that mark actually was.
Carolyn could, and she took great pains to make sure I could too.
But gardens are more than a collection of features. Years later, after walking through a garden in Normandy which failed to thrill me, she challenged me further to see the garden in the context of its position in time and culture, which made the achievement far greater – and my initial dismissiveness, all the more superficial.
A garden is not solely about paths, plants, specimens and hardscaping. It is about provenance, and innovation within that provenance. This comes through loud and clear in Adventures in Eden. These are great gardens of our time, and each is playing a vital role in the story of contemporary design in the 21st century.
The Thorny Issue of ‘Elitism’
All of the extraordinary gardens featured are open to the public, and all except one are private residences. This brings up a sensitive subject – but as this is GardenRant, I’ll address it.
I have seen other reviews of this book – and of other great gardens generally – where the term ‘elite’ is tossed around with easy abandon. I feel I must answer this charge, both as a gardener who works tirelessly without a staff, and as an observer who looks to other gardens both domestically and internationally to inform and inspire my own choices.
Simply stated, whether one has $500 or $500,000 to throw at the space outside one’s windows, not everyone has the natural ability to create significant gardens. There are many owner/designers featured in Adventures in Eden who do not hold any professional qualifications beyond the quality of the garden they have worked a lifetime to create – several from humble beginnings, such as Jakobstuin in Friesland, or The Veddw in Chepstow (created by fellow Ranter Anne Wareham and her husband Charles Hawes).
More importantly, not everyone has the desire to create significant gardens – to move beyond ‘pretty’ or ‘restful’ and create art for art’s sake, or to act as a patron for a designer who can. There are far smarter and less heartbreaking ways to spend one’s money than on a constantly evolving landscape leased only for a lifetime.
Gardens as Art – and as Inspiration
I have stood in enough soulless, high-end gardens to recognize when a landscape has been created and maintained solely for social status or decoration. The absence of a gardener’s spirit is palpable. These are not the gardens you will explore in Adventures in Eden. To casually label them elite is to negate great achievement – to, I might add, the cost of one’s continuing education.
Thank goodness these gardens exist. Whether you tour them or you read about them, you are inspired by them. An inspired mind is a positive, creative mind; and if you have managed to recognize feelings of envy and resentment for the limiting feelings that they are and moved past them, then you have the power to create your own, unique-to-you garden right now.
While I will always be an advocate for giving readers an idea of the help needed to build and maintain a garden (Mullet does this with several, not all, of the featured gardens), I am thankful for the chance to observe these gardens on a winter’s day when the world is still in lockdown and motivation in short supply.
Great European gardens are not a relic of the past – they are of the present and of the future. Adventures in Eden is an opportunity to explore them. – MW